YA – Traitor

McCrina, Amanda. Traitor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 978-0-374-31352-4. 368 p. $18.99. Grades 7-12. 

War is not clean and neat, and McCrina’s Traitor masterfully portrays the emotional and ethical wreckage it causes. The two-pronged storyline begins with Tolya, in July 1944. A young soldier in the Soviet army during World War II, Tolya keeps his head down. With his Ukranian father executed as a traitor, and his mother shot for being Polish, his loyalties do not lie with the Soviets, but he enlisted because he was alone and hungry. When he shoots his unit’s political officer during an assault on a young woman, it’s only a matter of time until the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police, arrest and shoot him. However, when he is whisked away, it turns out to be an extraction by the Ukranian Insurgent Army, who are looking for a sniper to assassinate a high ranking Soviet officer. The alternate plot line begins in June 1941, following young Ukranian Aleksey who is attempting to break  his Ukranian nationalist hero father out of a Russian controlled Polish prison prior to the arrival of German troops. As life deteriorates in the Polish city, an injured Aleksey and his brother, Mykola, find themselves in the care of the Polish Resistance. Both plotlines highlight the confusing disintegration of loyalties as the Germans advance into Russian territory. While the Russians had allied themselves with the Polish resistance earlier in the war, now they are actively hunting and killing them. Astute readers may pick up on the connection between the two plotlines early in the book; most will unravel it deeper into the story, hindered by the profusion of characters with unfamiliar names. But the ultimate moral of the story is that there are no winners in war. Readers’ hearts will ache for the profound loneliness of both Tolya and Aleksey, as they cannot bring themselves to trust anyone. Ultimately, it seems, everyone’s goal is to just survive. A character list and an outline of military units at the end of the book are extremely useful to readers in keeping the complex stories organized.

THOUGHTS: This outstanding historical fiction story highlights a lesser known corridor of World War II. The era is presented in deeply humanistic terms, highlighting the psychological toll war causes on those caught up against their will. It can be a challenging read with dozens of characters and multiple factions to keep straight, but the reward is magnificent. Hand this stunning book to Alan Gratz fans who are ready for something more mature. 

Historical Fiction          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

The Winter Horses…new middle level fiction

Kerr, Philip. The Winter Horses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 978-0-385-75544-3. $16.99. 278p. Gr. 6-8.
During the summer of 1941, Maxim Melnik cared for the animals on the Askaniya-Nova animal sanctuary located in the Ukraine, but the Przewalski horses fascinated him more than any other.  Warned of the sinister Nazi invasion and indisputable takeover of the reserve by the senior manager, Max held his ground assuming the Germans couldn’t be any worse than the Russians.  To his utter disbelief, they proved him wrong when their first order of business was to begin shooting the animals to feed their troops.  On the other side of the reserve, a young, orphaned Jewish girl meanders across the rugged steppe in search of food and shelter, trying to stay clear of any Nazis.  She stumbles upon two horses who see in her a comparable ally.  Max shortly discovers this unlikely trio and unconsciously vows to protect Kalinka and the last two Przewalski horses no matter the risk.  When Captain Grenzmann uncovers Kalinka’s hiding place, Max tries stalling to give Kalinka and the horses a head start.  Only the cunning intelligence of the Przewalski breed will outsmart the Nazis who are pursuing them across the Ukrainian wilderness.
The history of the Przewalski horses is extremely interesting.  They date back tens of thousands of years and are even pictured in the prehistoric paintings of Paleolithic men.  At the end of World War II, nine horses remained.  Protected and cared for, their number has grown to approximately 1500.  Kerr has added a fantastical element to her story and allows the reader to determine where the legend ends and history begins.
Historical Fiction       Christine Massey, JWP Middle School